First published in 1930, I Am Jonathan Scrivener concerns the unlikely adventures of James Wrexham, a disillusioned clerk of almost forty who has achieved little in his uneventful life. Wrexham considers himself not only to be a lonely man but to be defined by loneliness, yet - unlike many lonely people - he feels this has enriched his understanding of others.
I have known years of loneliness and there is a type of experience which is revealed only to the lonely. During those years I was forced to learn a good deal about myself and that knowledge taught me what to look for in others. If you have been behind the scenes, you never regain the illusion which belongs to a person who has always been simply a member of the audience.
Fearing stagnation, Wrexham impulsively decides to apply for the job of secretary to Jonathan Scrivener, a 'gentleman of independent means', via an advertisement in the Times. Much to his surprise, Scrivener employs him without the two of them meeting or even speaking. He's even more baffled when Scrivener, who is abroad, issues instructions that Wrexham should move into his flat immediately, make himself comfortable and fully enjoy the advantages of living in London.
This turns out to involve meeting and socialising with Scrivener's many friends, who turn up at his doorstep (and in some cases inside the flat itself) expecting Scrivener to be there. They are: Pauline, a young, beautiful woman with great innocence and an inquisitive nature; Middleton, an alcoholic troubled by his experiences in the war and the loss of his fiancée; Mrs. Bellamy (Francesca), a woman made famous by the suicide of her extremely wealthy husband; and Rivers, a flighty young man and something of a social butterfly. These characters, Pauline and Francesca in particular, are each richly imagined in their own right. What binds them all together, Wrexham included, is a desire for something more than the conventional life they have been offered, and rejection of the options they have before them. But each of them is uncommonly obsessed with Scrivener, something made to seem all the more unusual because they are so different in character, age, class, and experience.
I Am Jonathan Scrivener is very much a book of its time, and it's one of a very, very small number of books (Mrs Dalloway being another) that really made me think about what life and society were actually like during this period. The contrast between the prudish austerity of the Victorian era, so recent in the memories of many, and what is depicted here as the flippancy and flamboyance of 1920s/30s youth; the aftermath of war and the feeling that society was a new, reshaped thing. Wrexham's narrative often involves commentary on London and on society in general, as he observes life in a city much changed from the London of twenty years before. These observations are compelling as a snapshot of this particular period, a world which had seen cataclysmic change and would be upturned again within a decade. They are sometimes amusing because they're still relevant now - and sometimes because they're very much the opposite.
Wherever I went, whatever the time, there were hordes of people—restless, irritable, or apathetic people—staring into shops, herding into 'buses, or waiting impatiently to cross streets which were congested with every type of vehicle, capable of every variety of speed. The gloom, particularly in the faces of the men, was remarkably apparent. In a thousand unsuspected places he results of ordeal by battle were unmistakably clear. These people were weary, sceptical, disillusioned. They sought for pleasure with all the feverish activity of the unhappy.
I discovered that modern people never smile. They either shriek with laughter or look as if funerals were the order of the day. The dignity of which we English used to boast had vanished; everyone was slightly hysterical and seemed to be waiting for something to happen—half hoping that it would, yet half terrified that it might. The conversations I heard were always about money... a car of any sort was regarded as the highest pinnacle of human felicity. The garage has become our spiritual home.
... Everyone was exceedingly class conscious when the plain fact of the matter was that classes had ceased to exist and everyone now belonged to one vast undifferentiated mass. Democracy had triumphed at the precise moment when everyone had ceased to believe in it. Politics had become a longer word for chaos. At the time of which I am writing the Conservatives were in power... The Labour Party was far too busy preparing its programme, or dealing with revolution in its own ranks, or explaining that it had not stolen its panaceas from the Liberals, to spare any time for effective criticisms of the Government's proposals. Meanwhile, as ever, the country was run by the Civil Service.
At one point, someone makes the remark 'something will turn up - another war or something' - a comment that would have made me roll my eyes had I encountered it in a contemporary novel set in 1930, yet it seems fascinating to find it here.
This is also a very funny book, albeit one with a rather dry sense of humour. One of the most amusing scenes occurs when Rivers takes Wrexham to a Japanese restaurant, a place he clearly finds confounding in the extreme.
It was at this point that the first course appeared. It consisted of odds and ends of dry, very dead-looking things. I tried one which looked like a mushroom of great antiquity, but it turned out to be raw fish.
Although it resembled spaghetti, recent experience had proved that in this restaurant things were not what they seemed. Nor did the fact that one solitary prawn crowned the writhing pyramid inspire me with any confidence. "Looks like spaghetti," said Rivers, "but it isn't." I waited, hoping he would say what it was, but he began to eat in the manner of one performing a rite.
As tactfully as possible I inquired whether coffee in this restaurant in any way resembled the beverage usually associated with the word. On being assured that it did, I accepted a cup. It was coffee. I drank it quickly, fearful that its surroundings might pervert it.
Other highlights include a soup containing 'long weeds' which resemble 'serpents who had died in youth', and desserts that look like 'small, petrified bats'. In fact, many of the book's funniest moments involve Wrexham's interactions with Rivers. He is the 'light relief' character, the least obvious fit for Scrivener's group of friends, seeming to lack the others' yearning for a unique sense of being, and his cheerful volatility appears to bring out the best of Wrexham's dry wit:
Rivers was an entirely new experience for me. Not only had I never met anyone remotely like him, but I had never imagined such a person as a possibility.
... He paused, studied me with the eyes of a superman, then asked if I could lend him a tenner. The atmosphere was so charged with the philosophy of "live dangerously" that I said "yes".
Naturally, given the strange circumstances surrounding Scrivener's character, the plot progresses as a mystery, as Wrexham tries to piece together the reasons for his employer's patronage of such a mismatched group of individuals - not to mention his own mysterious installation in the role of secretary. If this was a modern novel, it would no doubt build to some revelation about Scrivener - he doesn't really exist, or he's several people, or Wrexham himself turns out to be Scrivener, or something. But while the ending holds a small twist, the story is less about this conundrum than the fact that it brings Wrexham into the others' orbit and transforms not only his day-to-day existence, but his whole belief system. Similarly, while it becomes apparent towards the end that Wrexham is an unreliable narrator - something particularly evident when he speaks of a hitherto unmentioned love for Pauline and also alludes to having been affected by an unknown event, years ago, 'which made me content to become a spectator of life' - we never get to know anything more about him than he has disclosed. That event, whatever it was, remains concealed.
In the final few chapters, Wrexham's grip on reality loosens; he becomes both paranoid and intensely philosophical, puzzles out the connections between Scrivener's friends, and at the same time imagines they might really have been Scrivener's accomplices, acting out parts, and that Scrivener's servant is spying on him. I Am Jonathan Scrivener is a sort of mystery, making it a compulsive read, but more than that it is simply a story about people, their psychology, their differences and depths of character, what they might be driven to accept or reject given a wealth of opportunities. Through his characters, especially his brilliantly drawn women, Claude Houghton explores the questions any person might ask about their own life, and depicts a search for meaning and purpose that is timeless - but the fact that this is so clearly positioned in the time it was written gives it an extra layer of interest for the modern reader, since it shows how social turbulence and the after-effects of conflict might contribute to such existential interrogation....more
I bought a copy of this on eBay - it's long out of print - after loving Dan Jacobson's first two books, The Trap and A Dance in the Sun, when I read tI bought a copy of this on eBay - it's long out of print - after loving Dan Jacobson's first two books, The Trap and A Dance in the Sun, when I read them in April. Through the Wilderness is more of a mixed bag: many of the stories don't have the visceral beauty of those novellas, and some of the shorter ones are more forgettable. Jacobson is always at his best when portraying the South African veld, its dusty plains spreading on forever and the sun beating down on whitewashed iron buildings. The stories set in England always seem to lack something, to have a feeling of being drab and hemmed in - maybe that's just the contrast in landscapes, maybe it's a reflection of the author's own feelings, maybe it's deliberate.
I didn't make notes on every story in this collection, but these were my favourites: A Day in the Country: A family are drawn into a violent confrontation while driving back from a day out. Only nine pages long, but full of tension. Beggar My Neighbour: A young boy from a rich white family starts giving food to a pair of street children, imagining himself their saviour, and is perturbed when their reaction fails to conform to his fantasy. The idea of doing something ostensibly noble and/to help others (or wanting to be perceived as helping others) for what are in fact selfish and vain reasons is portrayed so incisively here, and feels just as (if not more) timely today. Fresh Fields: Dreaming of literary success in London, a writer goes in search of his hero, but finds the great man disillusioned and lacking inspiration. The Pretenders: One of the longest stories in the book, in which a film is being made about an American who attempted to establish the 'State of Diamondia' during the South African diamond rush. The cast of characters includes a delusional, ambitious wannabe who aspires to be a famous actor, along with a very old man claiming to be the legendary American himself. This story has a lot going on but it all feels beautifully contained, and the characters are particularly strong. Through the Wilderness: Another of the longest, this is also the most similar in tone to The Trap and A Dance in the Sun. A farmer's son, reluctant to take on the duties involved in looking after the family farm while his father is in hospital, is introduced to a persistent Israelite preacher. Perfectly communicating both the oppressiveness and the vast openness of the veld, the story revisits the themes of Jacobson's first novels, especially in the helplessness the narrator feels in confronting cultural differences and his own ingrained racism.
--- My father had bought the farm after one of the wettest years we could remember in Lyndhurst; he had come to it at the end of summer, when the slopes of the veld were covered in grass that was knee-high, green at the stems, and beginning to go to a silvery-blue seed at the tips. Clouds moved across the sky; and the light, when it fell to the earth, seemed to be taken in by the grass and subdued there. The veld was wide and so gentle one could hardly understand why it should have been empty of people. - The Game
[Michael] was not unhappy in his loneliness. He was used to it, in the first place; and then, because he was lonely, he was all the better able to indulge himself in his own fantasies... It was not long before the two African children, who were now accosting him regularly, appeared in some of his games, for their weakness, poverty, and dependence gave Michael ample scope to display in fantasy his kindness, generosity, courage and decisiveness. - Beggar My Neighbour
In England there was a tradition, after all, of high thinking and bleak living; their own poverty could appear to them almost glamorous. - Trial and Error
... He was proud that what he was feeling had come as a surprise to him; that it had sprung entirely from within himself, insread of having been tainted by words in books and magazines, laid down for him in patterns set by others. In comparison with what he felt as a father it seemed to him that so much else in his marriage and work was mere imitation, a mere groping towards states of mind and feeling he wished to have because he had read or been told they were desirable. - Trial and Error
My father's life had been a ceaseless, unknowing, unswerving trek towards these hideous days and hours; they were the summation of his life as well as its undoing. He had moved through time as through a landscape, distracted by a thousand moods, experiences, possessions, achievements, memories, but always, unfalteringly, in one direction only, in this direction. And as with him, so with everyone else who lived, or had ever lived, or ever would. - Through the Wilderness
... The sun was low in the west, red, growing larger; around it were gathering the clouds that invariably appeared in the western corner of the horizon at that hour, after even the most cloudless days. Those clouds, together with the dust that was always in the air, the flat openness of the country, and the strength of the sun, all combined to produce the most spectacular sunsets, day after day: immense, silent, rapid combustions that flared violently into colour and darkened simultaneously. It always seemed suddenly that you became aware the colours had been consumed and only the darkness remained. - Through the Wilderness
I remember how consoling I found the emptiness of the countryside around me, its width, its indifference, its hard materiality. It was there, it would last. That was something to be grateful for, I felt then, not resentful of, as I had always been in the past. - Through the Wilderness
--- List/order of stories: 1. The Box 2. A Day in the Country 3. The Zulu and the Zeide 4. The Little Pet 5. The Game 6. A Way of Life 7. Beggar My Neighbour 8. Fresh Fields 9. The Example of Lipi Lippmann 10. An Apprenticeship 11. Trial and Error 12. The Pretenders 13. Another Day 14. Sonia 15. Through the Wilderness 16. Led Astray...more
Important facts about this book: 1. These are those kind of stories that are really scenes, slices of characters' lives. Don't expect them to have endiImportant facts about this book: 1. These are those kind of stories that are really scenes, slices of characters' lives. Don't expect them to have endings. (It's not just a stylistic quirk that the subtitle is 'And Other People' instead of 'And Other Stories'. These are sketches of individuals first and foremost.) 2. This is mainly a book about sex and dogs. But not in a weird way. 3. I was impressed with how real (almost) all of these characters felt to me, but something about the stories consistently left me a little cold.
How Am I Supposed To Talk To You? A girl goes to visit her mother in Mexico, armed with a suitcase of Victoria's Secret underwear which the two of them will sell on the beach - 'she said the kids there wanted this underwear more than marijuana'. A good opener for the book, this story sets the tone; it's simple, clean in its prose, careful in its detail, and anticlimatic.
Weekend With Beth, Kelly, Muscle, and Pammy A guy called Jason spends a weekend in New York with his sister and a friend (the other two names in the title - Muscle and Pammy - are different names for the same dog). Along the way he ruminates on his relationship with Beth, his ex-flatmate and one-time lover, who seems to both attract and disgust him. This was my least favourite story of the collection - I didn't find Jason's voice convincing at all; I couldn't believe he was a guy (as opposed to a guy written by a woman, I mean). Thankfully, none of the other stories turned out to be narrated by male characters.
Mike Anonymous In contrast, I loved this one, and I think of all the stories, this was the most original and interesting. The narrator works in a sexual health clinic, and Mike Anonymous is an incomprehensible patient she has to deal with. Fresh and funny and sad.
I Will Crawl To Raleigh If I Have To (I like the fact that some of these story titles sound like emo song titles.) This one's about a girl who's planning to break up with her boyfriend; in fact, she's desperate to break up with him, but her plans are derailed by a family holiday. The American-middle-class-family-vacation stuff was a turn-off, but I loved the narrator's account of her relationship, a great example of the sad/funny balance that Holmes seems to do really well.
Desert Hearts A young woman moves to San Francisco with her boyfriend, who's starting a lucrative role in a law firm. She's got a law degree too, but doesn't want to work in law, partly to spite her father. So she gets a sales job in a sex shop. This was another one of the best, and most comic - the narrator's lies spiral out of control after she pretends to be a lesbian in order to get hired, then has to keep justifying her faux-sexuality to a suspicious colleague.
Pearl and the Swiss Guy Fall In Love An unnamed narrator starts dating a man known only as 'the Swiss guy'. Pearl is her dog, a pit bull who hates men until the Swiss guy comes along. It's only when the narrator lets the Swiss guy move into her apartment, supposedly on a temporary basis, that she realises she doesn't actually like him (while Pearl grows to like him instead). This was fine, but kind of depressing.
New Girls A (pre-teen, young teen?) girl moves from America to Germany with her family. Her story is structured according to a chronological list of the girls she becomes friends - or enemies - with in her new hometown. A good evocation of what it's like to live in an unfamiliar country while young, though the various characters are too briefly described to make a proper impression.
My Humans Given the number of times dogs appear in this book, it isn't really surprising to find one of the stories is narrated by a dog. This charts the disintegration of a relationship - that of the owners - through the eyes of said dog, Princess. I thought this was going to work badly at first, but I liked the way the owners' affection towards the dog was developed. Towards the end, the story becomes more reliant on dialogue, which actually improves it. Quite cleverly done.
Jerks I couldn't remember a thing about this when I came to write this review. Which maybe says a lot. Having skimmed it again, it seems to me that it typifies the book - another one about a postgrad student who moves somewhere (in this case back home with her dad) after a breakup; a character who's broke but has rich parents. The story is about her interest in photography and her experiences with babysitting a troublesome little boy.
Barbara the Slut The blurb says this story follows the title character as she overcomes her high school's toxic slut-shaming culture, which is a buzzwordy way to describe it, but also not actually what happens. The story is set up with this idea that Barbara only sleeps with every boy one time, that this is because she once slept with the same boy more than once and 'it made him dishonest' - but there's no real examination of why Barbara thinks like this, how a girl would come to such a conclusion by the age of sixteen. Which is fine, the story doesn't have to explain that, but because it doesn't, Barbara reads too much like a teen written by an adult, with an adult's hindsight, a too-mature self-possession about sex and the transactional nature of high school relationships. By making her perfect in every other way (she's a fitness-obsessed, straight-A student who wins a place at Princeton while also caring for her autistic brother) the story also felt like it was hitting me over the head with the idea that she couldn't really be a 'slut' because she was objectively a 'good person' - which surely undermines its supposed message. Wouldn't this have been a more interesting and daring story if Barbara's sex life had been the only thing that defined her, and/or had distracted/taken away from other things in her life? If the reader had been challenged to sympathise with her despite that? As it was, the story actually had the opposite impact, as I found the character smug and annoying, and wasn't inclined to sympathise with her individually. (This story annoyed me, can you tell?) In short, I wasn't convinced by anything about the character or scenario at all.
What I really felt this collection needed was greater diversity. All of the stories are written in first person; they're all about young or young-ish people trying to find their way in the world; they're all about American characters from similar backgrounds; they're all set in America in the present day (except 'New Girls', which depicts an American protagonist in Germany, and appears to take place in the late 90s). Even the dog-centric story has much the same tone and focus as the others.
Despite my rant about the final story, I think it's clear from her sharp-eyed prose and the clever humour in stories like 'Mike Anonymous' and 'Desert Hearts' that Holmes is a talent to watch. This book, overall, simply fell a little short of my expectations....more
(Incidentally, I read this entirely on trains.) This short story, verging on novella length, is an odd mixture that doesn't fully work, and I have to(Incidentally, I read this entirely on trains.) This short story, verging on novella length, is an odd mixture that doesn't fully work, and I have to agree with other reviewers that the translation doesn't seem to be very good, with awkward phrases and idioms that have either been translated incorrectly or just don't make sense in English. There's an awkwardness in the themes, too: the idea of sentient trains running 'off the tracks' is, at points, so silly that it's difficult to believe this is supposed to be a story for adults - but Rupert's brain damage wouldn't exactly fit very well into a story for kids. Despite all of this, however, I found something about the story gripping, effective and atmospheric enough that I enjoyed it. Karen's review brought this to my attention, and I agree with her that while parts of it might feel like a bit of a drag, it's worth reading. ...more
First Execution begins as a tale of political intrigue. Domenico Stasi, a retired teacher, goes to meet a former student, Nina, who has been arrestedFirst Execution begins as a tale of political intrigue. Domenico Stasi, a retired teacher, goes to meet a former student, Nina, who has been arrested on a charge of 'armed conspiracy'. He's convinced this must have been some kind of mistake, and hopes to find her contrite, but instead, the unapologetic Nina sets him a task: he is to go to the apartment of a friend of hers, find a certain book and copy out a specified line, which will be collected from him by a stranger. When he complies, he finds himself drawn into a dangerous chain of events, in which he's unsure of the exact function he's performing; is he aiding the activities of terrorists? But then the story becomes metafictional: another Domenico, the author himself, appears in the narrative, talking about how he's writing this book, where he wants it to go, and how his own experiences and memories are feeding into it. The two stories run alongside and into each other, as Stasi's dilemma becomes more and more pronounced - he digs himself into an increasingly deep hole in near-comic fashion - and Starnone rewinds and reshapes his story, exploring the different directions it could take. The Stasi story is an examination of the effect of a certain style of education on young minds, with two extreme cases represented by Nina and another ex-student, Sellitto, who has become a police officer. The other narrative is a meditation on the nature of writing and the evolution of one's political beliefs. Both Stasi and Starnone seem tortured by the fact that they have remained outwardly apathetic in a time of upheaval, while feeling inwardly conflicted about their ability to empathise with both the oppressors and the oppressed. Stasi ruminates on whether his life has been wasted, having chosen to teach rather than to act - and how much responsibility he has to bear for the development of his students' ideals and, consequently, their choices.
There is something brilliantly economical about the way First Execution is written. It's bursting with ideas - about politics, education, writing, ageing, justice and injustice, the nature and definition of 'terrorism', pacifism vs direct action... - and is filled with philosophical digressions, but they are expressed so clearly and beautifully that the book is a pleasure to read. I frequently found myself marking pages to remember, or highlighting passages that struck a chord with me (see the list of quotes below). It's intensely thought-provoking and challenging - but it's also a story I struggled to tear myself away from.
--- p.28: 'When had I tamed myself? It had been a lengthy apprenticeship, begun when I was as young as ten, and continued relentlessly throughout my adolescence, when I had discovered to my own terror that I wanted to murder somebody: my father, a sarcastic friend, my professor of Latin and Greek, even a rude passerby. It was not until I was almost twenty that I began to suspect that, along with the repression of my violent impulses, I had repressed everything, even my ability to experience a profound emotion, even my impulse to do good deeds and help others. I had become as good as I had hoped to be, but good with the cautious detachment of one who never indulges in excess.'
p.39: 'His radical beliefs had always been considered a form of mental honesty. His own life story was first and foremost a history of the books he had read, and he eagerly recounted that story to himself, often with a note of self-deprecation.'
p.57: 'Aging is the slow process of becoming accustomed to the end of real life. One must slowly abandon one's image, one's role, and resign oneself to fading in the memories of others, and in our own. How long had it been since he stopped learning the names of novelists, essayists, directors, singers, artists, and notable people in general? When had he begun to cling to his customary books without trying to read new ones, to his old movie stars without curiosity about the rising ones? Five years ago, or three years ago? His daughter Ida would toss out a name of someone who, in her view, was famous, and he'd shake his head uneasily: he'd never heard of them. Becoming grey, melted wax, formless. Perhaps that was the best way to prepare to die.'
p.62: 'The mists of the Underworld evoked the hypothetical canopy of the Overworld. And that's where I've lived my life, he thought, saddened. In this den, reading, learning. Learning what? The mists of the Underworld, studied and pitied from a comfortable chair, in safety, at the edge of the canopy of the Overworld, in a distant warmth. He had spent a life without great luxury, but without serious privations.'
p.67: 'It was as if—he realized—his blood was running cold, as if his ardor had cooled. He sensed with increasing clarity that the ferocity of political and military behavior, the deplorable actions of the world around him and the world that extended out in the distance, the scandalous poverty of the many and the scandalous wealth of the few, no longer instilled that old sense of determination in him. The very idea that demons don't war against demons, that one Satan never exorcises another Satan, but that there are always hosts of devils on one side and hosts of angels arrayed against them, now struck him as a piece of rank sophistry. At the heart of the battle it is not always so clear where good lies and where evil lies.'
p.96: 'Real images (a ticket taker or the station sign—Genova P. Principe—or the station bar the way I'd seen it at four in the afternoon the week before) set off mental sequences and I lived in a state of distraction for a period that felt endless, but might last only a moment, a fleeting instant. Everything seemed to press in upon me with a vigorous coherence. But as soon as I attempted to marshal everything into written form, the story seemed to lack realism, sociological detail, a fundamental narrative syntax in a way that depressed me.'
p.117-8: 'All the same, a secret part of me... was unable to avoid feeling affinity with the killers rather than the killed, with the kidnappers rather than the kidnapped. I deleted words of condemnation from my vocabulary, I tried not to use current labels. I was careful, even in my thoughts, to avoid using the words murderers, criminals, torturers, terrorists; I felt that they were somehow inadequate. I really thought of them as combatants. Of course, their actions filled me with horror, even fear, and yet the stand they were taking, the determination with which they were attacking, wounding, taking prisoners, and taking life as if they were metaphysical surgeons doing battle with a tumor, led me to feel somehow, I'm not sure how to put it, indebted to them, almost as if I owed them something for having acted in my place, sparing me, at least for the moment, tensions, anxiety, and disgust. That "so?" from Nina, that sign of the impossibility of any reconciliation, both frightened me and fascinated me. What a beautiful day, I thought. So? So? So?'
p.121: 'Good job. You did a good job of shedding blood. In order to eat. In order to occupy someone else's land. To defend yourself. To drive off invaders. To defend sources of water or oil wells. All of these things on this huge verminous ball that day and night a malevolent scarab beetle rolls through a vicious circle, an obtusely fixed orbit in which war follows upon war, massacre follows massacre, and genocide is succeeded by fresh genocide. I carefully swept the balcony, raising clouds of luminous dust.'
p.122-3: 'I had grown old without understanding, and there was nothing to understand. In the final analysis all that mattered was the warm March breeze, springtime, the light striking the wall across the way, the consoling colors that conceal the indecipherable nature of the world. A stream of images—actual, fantastical, dreamed, and remembered. A word, fired by the vocal cords out through the mouth, in a volley of sounds: gutturals, palatals, dentals, labials, nasals. Conciliatory sounds and signs. Or perhaps not, perhaps conversation does not reconcile, does not pacify, does not keep company. We use handsome words to record ugly things, we agree on plans of attack, ambushes, mockeries, genocide, destruction-reconstruction-destruction. We speak violence and we call it the quest for food, hunting, caste, class, competition, market forces, liberation, and the new world order. Perhaps the culminating horror is the seed of the words that describe it.'
p.164: 'Both of us—we discovered—had long and secretly suspected that Stasi was a gullible impostor, that his way of depicting himself was seductive precisely because it was invented out of whole cloth, for our edification and consumption, and for his own.'...more
The premise: Plum is overweight and unhappy, biding her time until she can afford weight-loss surgery, when she is introduced to the women of Calliope House. Described as 'part coming-of-age story, part revenge fantasy', Dietland follows Plum as she is inducted into the Calliope community via a series of challenges - but also promises a 'sinister plot' with 'explosive consequences'.
First line:It was late in the spring when I noticed that a girl was following me, nearly the end of May, a month that means perhaps or might be.
What I read: Part one (9%).
Would I read the rest of it? Yes. Though it seems, so far, to have been frequently misidentified as some sort of chicklit, Dietland feels more like a clever satire, albeit a warmly funny one. It's well-written and charming, and I already love Plum. I'm also excited to see how the story is going to develop, since it sounds like it becomes a lot darker after this fairly innocuous beginning, following our heroine around her pleasant but very limited world - the hook comes when a mysterious girl writes the name 'Dietland' across her hand and proceeds to gift her a book with that word in the title. Another one I could easily just read in one go right now. (NB, this is a NetGalley review copy of the US edition. Judging by Amazon, it doesn't look like the book is officially out in the UK until December. I'd say it's well worth keeping an eye out for.)...more
I was so confused about the provenance of this edition of Vertigo at first. I had initially assumed it was a new translation, but it's actually (I thiI was so confused about the provenance of this edition of Vertigo at first. I had initially assumed it was a new translation, but it's actually (I think) a reissue to tie in with the launch of Pushkin's Vertigo imprint, dedicated to 'writers of the greatest thrillers and mysteries on earth from countries around the world'. (I really want to cut 'on earth' from that sentence) (and possibly 'countries') Adding to the confusion (which is perhaps very apt for this novel), I was half asleep when I read it. So I can't write anything much in the way of a review, but I did really enjoy this noirish mystery and tale of obsession; it's a quick read with a great ending. I'll certainly read more Boileau-Narcejac. ...more
An odd one, this. I went into it basically expecting chick-lit - albeit a slightly superior form of chick-lit, by virtue of it being translated from FAn odd one, this. I went into it basically expecting chick-lit - albeit a slightly superior form of chick-lit, by virtue of it being translated from French. However, it takes some rather grim turns, and the title - which I, at first, took as flippant and funny - ends up having a certain dark significance, especially if (as everything implies) the story is autobiographical.
It starts as the story of a female journalist, 'MS', becoming obsessed with a new colleague, 'XX', who she hires because of his looks and proceeds to pursue rather ruthlessly. The two have a fling, throughout which it's clear that XX's feelings for MS are far from equal to hers for him. Ultimately, he breaks it off, and MS is left in a distraught state, picking over the bones of their relationship by cataloguing 'evidence' such as emails, texts, letters, and photos of objects he left behind or mementoes of their dates (there are lots of lighters). This part of the book includes some very daft, implausible touches, such as MS writing letters to Facebook to determine whether XX can tell that she's constantly checking his profile.
But alongside this, the backstory of MS's family is told. At first comparatively dry, these chapters build to a disturbing revelation. This is surprising in the context of the light and silly earlier half of the novel, but it also makes some sense of MS's neediness and obsessive behaviour towards XX. However, the book is too slight to really examine it, and just comes to a stop soon after this point. The overall effect is an uneven work, with not one but two stories left feeling frustratingly unfinished. ...more
An intense novella (are all novellas intense by definition?) about Odissa, a pregnant woman living in a hot, stagnant French city, and her craving forAn intense novella (are all novellas intense by definition?) about Odissa, a pregnant woman living in a hot, stagnant French city, and her craving for cheese, which precipitates a series of erotic dreams. That description makes the story sound a bit silly, but when you're reading it, it really isn't. It creates a perfect microcosm, in which the city comes alive and the often surreal details - Odissa's fire-eater boyfriend, her aimless wandering around the city (never named, making it more intangible), the body pulled out of the river - mix with Odissa's dreams to make the whole story seem somewhat chimerical. The cover and blurb try to push the book as erotica, but it's more sensual than sexual. The pleasures of eating and drinking, the impression of Odissa's heightened senses of smell and taste, are really more prominent in the narrative than her dreams and fantasies. The sex scenes have mostly faded from my mind, but an impression of oppressive, shimmering heat and rich, indulgent food has stayed with me.
(This was one of the many debuts mentioned by Nicholas Royle in First Novel. Angelica Jacob is/was a psuedonym: the author has published a second novel, Confession, under what I assume is her real name, S.G. Klein. It's a shame that book - a love story based on real events in the lives of two of the Brontë sisters - doesn't interest me at all, because I found the style here mesmerising, ethereal.)...more
A 'haunting supernatural thriller' translated from Swedish, Stallo traces the connections between two events: the disappearance of a boy from a woodlaA 'haunting supernatural thriller' translated from Swedish, Stallo traces the connections between two events: the disappearance of a boy from a woodland cabin in 1978, and the possible sighting of a troll in a small town, 25 years later. The latter is investigated by Susso, the creator of a website dedicated to supposedly mythical beings: her father, a wildlife photographer, once took a picture of a strange creature which has entered family lore and sparked her obsession. With her mother Gudrun and ex-boyfriend Torbjörn in tow, Susso sets off on what turns out to be an epic adventure - apparently traversing the entirety of Sweden - to chase down the truth about the 'troll', a mission that suddenly becomes crucial when another boy goes missing in the town where it was spotted. Another narrative follows a man called Seved, although it's rather difficult to discuss the details of his part of the story without giving away exactly where it goes.
While very intrigued by the themes and the whole idea of this story, I'm afraid I found it rather a hard slog. Stallo suffers from the simple fact that it lays its cards on the table way too early: (view spoiler)[it's revealed very quickly that trolls and other 'mythical' creatures are real in this world, so the cover tagline of 'what if there really is something out there?' isn't really a question. (hide spoiler)] There are also so many characters it's difficult to keep them straight. Aside from Seved, Signe and Mattias, I have to admit I had no clue who anyone in the troll house was. And don't get me started on the amount of different names/words/phrases used to describe the various magical creatures; even by the end of the book I wasn't sure if they were all the same thing or several different 'species'. On the plus side, I did find the structure of the book enjoyable, with the main trio chasing clues, travelling from place to place meeting different people who help them, etc - it's old-fashioned and curiously reassuring. And I liked Susso and Gudrun: they were surprisingly ordinary heroines for this sort of novel.
I never feel very confident in talking about the quality of the translation in a translated novel, because unless I can also read it in the original language, how would I know which one is at fault? But the cover of this edition is plastered with a big quote from Karl Ove Knausgård about how the 'words seem to sparkle on the page', so I kind of feel like it probably is the translation that's the problem here. Far from being sparkling, the writing seems dull and turgid and adds to the feeling that the story is dragging on for too long. In places, it just seems plain wrong, or at least odd - the word 'object' repeatedly being used to refer to an animal particularly stood out to me.
I don't know if it's because most Scandinavian books I've read have been part of some series or another, but - despite its length - Stallo feels like it's the beginning of something, not necessarily a complete story in itself. There's a moment of sexual tension between Susso and Torbjörn that's never revisited, and the ending is very abrupt. I wonder if there'll be a second Susso investigation? I'm not sure I'd be interested in picking it up if there was. This was at least engaging and readable enough that I stuck with it for 600 pages, but all in all I think it's one of those books that tries to bridge the boundaries between literary and fantasy/horror fiction and ends up not being very good at either of them.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Following two men working in a rural, near-deserted South African hospital, Damon Galgut's The Good Doctor is an ambiguous story, in which nothing happens, and everything happens; a book of thick and palpable atmosphere. Frank Eloff is the long-established deputy director of the hospital, perpetually waiting for a step upwards to the top spot, a move that has been repeatedly promised, but never quite happens. At the beginning of the story, a new junior doctor, Laurence Waters, arrives - having apparently insisted upon this location, despite the fact that there are so few patients, the existing team find themselves with hardly anything to do. Laurence is everything Frank is not: endlessly upbeat, hopeful and incredibly, perhaps even wilfully, naive. But he also has a sinister streak, and when the two doctors are forced to share a room, Frank finds himself more and more distrustful of Laurence.
The plot also weaves in small stories that build up a picture of the surrounding area and its people. Built to serve the capital of a now-defunct homeland, the hospital is located amongst arid wasteland and an entirely deserted town. It's a setting Galgut exploits to full effect, creating a vivid image of an eerie, empty backdrop perfectly suited to the lost individuals who inhabit it - 'a strange twilight place', as Frank calls it. Secondary characters come into their own as representations of this place's limitations and its chequered history. There's Maria, a local married woman with whom Frank has had a long-running, erratic and distinctly odd affair; Tehogo, a hospital orderly who exerts an inexplicable power over the other staff; and 'the Brigadier', the self-styled former dictator of the homeland, who may or may not still be alive and exists as a shadowy presence on the fringes of both the town and the story.
The book opens with Frank's first impression of Laurence: 'The first time I saw him I thought, he won't last.' Later: 'I wanted to say, you're very young. I wanted to tell him, you won't last.' Yet lonely Frank finds himself unable to reject Laurence entirely - the newcomer is 'like two people', one an unwanted, clingy shadow, the other a much-needed confidant. There is always something vaguely disturbing about Laurence's presence, and always some suggestion he is not quite telling the whole truth about his own past; at other points, there are hints of an always-formless sexual tension between him and Frank. These various suggestions remain, for the most part, suggestions, and The Good Doctor never reaches the simmering pitch of a thriller. Despite that, it's an engrossing story that had me completely captivated from the first page onwards.
Who is 'the good doctor' of the title? It could be either Laurence, with his puppy-dog optimism, or Frank, who is far more down-to-earth, realistic and practical. But the book keeps the answer from us, highlighting the characters' faults - Laurence's damaging and possibly deliberate guilelessness and Frank's jaded, unhelpful cynicism - too clearly for either to be truly worthy of the name. There again, The Good Doctor is also, arguably, an allegory, with the protagonists' attitudes illustrating different approaches to the 'new' South Africa and the flaws within them. Frank is stuck in his ways and resists change, unless it benefits him. Laurence, on the other hand, wants to enable change, but goes about it in all the wrong ways, blindly doing what he thinks is right or useful rather than what is actually necessary or helpful to the impoverished community. Both men struggle to relate to their non-white colleagues, and in the end this will play a pivotal part in their respective failures. Near the end, Frank's boss Dr Ngema confronts him about his innate racism, but he resists, and thereafter the two are simply 'carefully nice to each other' - he still hasn't learned.
I loved the graceful voice and controlled tone of this spellbinding novel. Nominated for the Booker Prize in 2003, it's lost none of its power and feels incredibly fresh. I can't fault it - undoubtedly the best book I've read this year so far....more
The Blue is Lucy Clarke's third novel, following The Sea Sisters (known by the more elegant title Swimming at Night in the US) and A Single Breath. The stories are not officially connected, but might be considered a loose trilogy: they each have the tone of a thriller, but with softer edges; a big focus on secrets (usually someone lying about their past); a bit of a love story somewhere in the background; but most prominently and memorably, they demonstrate a romantic attachment to the idea of wanderlust and to an impossibly picturesque ideal of travelling, with colourful, richly described locations featuring just as significantly in the story as the characters. Even A Single Breath, which wasn't explicitly about travelling per se, involved a journey to a far-flung place and a lot of scenic description.
While The Sea Sisters was about siblings and A Single Breath about a newly married couple, in The Blue, Clarke turns her attention to a friendship. The major relationship in this story is between Lana and her best (in fact, only) friend Kitty. They have known each other since the first year of high school, where Lana was the archetypal artistic misfit and Kitty her social lifeboat - the two of them bonded over the loss of their mothers at a young age. Flashbacks to various key points in this friendship are what anchor the story and give their characters some solidity.
Lana and Kitty - the former escaping from a murkily difficult relationship with her father, the latter from a failing acting career and nascent alcoholism - pool their savings, pick a location (the Philippines) at random, and set off travelling. This is more or less where the beginning of the story finds them: Lana falls in the street, a man stops to help, and then they meet his friends, the crew of a yacht named The Blue. The two women instantly fall in love with the group's romantic, semi-nomadic way of life - everyone pays what they can towards the upkeep of the yacht, and decisions are made democratically; their days are spent travelling around virtually undiscovered islands, swimming, snorkelling and sunbathing - and, in the quick and convenient way of events in books, they move into an empty cabin. But it's not long before it becomes evident that things aren't quite as idyllic as they seem aboard The Blue. With seven people living in close quarters on a cramped ship (and relationships between them ostensibly forbidden), tempers swiftly fray and cracks appear in Lana and Kitty's new 'perfect life'.
Naturally, all of this builds up to a death, which we know about from the flash-forward prologue: it depicts a body floating in the sea as a yacht (guess which one) is steered away, 'the truth... already drifting out of reach'. (Though as the ending proves, Lana and Kitty's falling-out, one's betrayal of the other, is treated as more significant, and is the real axis on which the story turns.) The travel element is more about observing the beauty of 'exotic' places, appreciating nature and being free from the shackles of ordinary life - dull jobs and emotional baggage - than it is about immersing oneself in a different culture or actually understanding another country, making it a perfect fit for the 'beach read' genre because, despite the glamour of the characters' adventure, it's really about tourism, not engagement. (As I said in a recent blog post, I wished I could teleport myself to a deserted beach to read it). And a romance inevitably develops, but it's handled well, doesn't happen instantly and is a believable progression for the characters involved - to the point that I even found myself feeling emotionally invested in the outcome of that particular subplot...
There's a handful of genre authors I regard as masters at what they do - F.G. Cottam for ghost stories; Erin Kelly for crime; Kate Morton for her particular (often emulated) brand of part-historical fiction/buried-secrets mystery. Lucy Clarke has now crept onto this list with her blend of travelogue, thriller and relationship drama. I don't expect to get any real surprises with her books - I know they will likely always be the same kind of thing, but that doesn't make them any less enjoyable to me. Advance quotes about The Blue praise it as 'the ultimate holiday read', 'a perfect summer read', and they're exactly right - it's engrossing, the characters are interesting, the plot zips along, and its portrayal of an escape from the mundane, life at sea and island-hopping is vivid enough to serve as an armchair holiday, even if you don't have a deserted beach to accompany it. ...more
Maggie is in her fifties and lives alone, except for her dog, Buster. She's returning from a walking holiday when she catches the eye of a terrified girl in the airport toilets; the resulting sequence of events leads to her being lauded as a hero for rescuing the girl, Anja, from a trafficking ring. After she agrees to a meeting, Maggie finds Anja insinuating herself into her life and her home.
You might think you know where this is going: a lonely woman, starved of company; an unreliable first-person narrative; a charming, manipulative stranger who seems like the victim until it's too late. And in some ways, this story does bear the hallmarks of its antecedents - In My House is reminiscent of Zoë Heller's Notes on a Scandal and Harriet Lane's books. However, it surprised me - and exceeded my expectations - by transforming into an elegant and thoughtful character study, with a subtle undercurrent of tension, going beyond a resurrection of character stereotypes already done perfectly in other books. In the end, I felt it more closely resembled Samantha Harvey's underrated Dear Thief.
Maggie is not one of those fictional women whose loneliness is fuel for jealousy and avarice, despite the impression that's knowingly created by the opening scenes of her holidaying alone and returning to an empty house. She's neither alone nor lonely - there's a tight-knit group of friends and, it turns out, a daughter. It's clear Maggie has something to hide, clear her budding relationship with Anja has some greater significance, but the natures of these things are evasive. Her reasons for buying every newspaper, scouring them for mentions of Anja's escape and her own involvement, are unclear at first - it's not immediately evident whether she is simply obsessed by her own small representation in the media or afraid that the attention may bring something else to light. Later, she's horrified by the idea of photographs of her being tagged on Facebook. One might be drawn back to her early statement that she was 'never one for photos'. Why would she not want to be spotted by a member of her own family, as seems to be the case when she journeys to Brighton with Anja? What sense can any of this make when she is content to socialise with her friends and holiday with groups of strangers? Maggie's relationship with her daughter is another mystery - it is clearly strained, but they are not estranged from one another; so surely (we think) nothing that bad can have happened? These details keep you glued to the book and yet seem to preclude any major revelations, which I found refreshing. In My House deals not with extravagant twists, but a slow drip-feed of information.
One of the triumphs of In My House is Maggie's narration: in every aspect, it reflects the character. Ordinary, but a cut above banal; restrained, but a little romantic; plain language with an edge. Here she is describing a walk in the park:
A group of uniformed children waited at the entrance, their cries like birds. Clouds rushed us, and the wind picked up a handful of crisped leaves and threw them at the dogs. The beginnings of autumn, though we were not there yet.
Recalling the response to a poem recital in her teenage years:
An eddy of applause and then a sharp throaty sound from a single spiteful girl. A silence began, a contagious sort of silence; a ripple of embarrassment that spread like blown sand, in shuffle and glare.
Remembering her mother:
Hands gripping her skirts, eyes on fire, transported. She was articulate in her fury; a glamour to her - her only glamour. Never more compelling than in the arms of a rage.
Her ablutions end with 'the bath blood cool, water sheeting off me'. Buses emit 'long queeny gasps'. Cautiously elegant, self-consciously refined, with something clipped, measured, and restrained about it - Maggie's voice elevates her above those around her, and yet occasionally shows her up as more judgemental than she'd like anyone to believe. Another strength of Hourston's style is the dialogue - 'And Jan? She. They got on?' 'Sorry. I've just got to. Sorry. You go' - with its halting, authentic rendering of speech.
There are no plainly disturbing moments here, more odd turns of phrase and small motifs that make themselves known by repetition. Maggie's references to Anja evoke the language of lovers as often as they do a mother-daughter sort of relationship. The two of them simultaneously saying the same thing 'turned my mind to lovers, and perhaps hers too'; after Anja sleeps at Maggie's house, they sense the aftermath of 'some sexless one-night stand'. But Maggie often wants to either protect Anja or tell her off, baffled at her hallmarks of youth - texting, revealing clothes, a bad tattoo. By placing Maggie's attitude towards Anja partway between motherly and covetous, Hourston makes their relationship all the more disconcerting. There's a scene in which Maggie brushes Anja's hair that was like nails down a blackboard for me, such was the pitch of its weird, familial/carnal vibe. Maggie refers continually to memories of her own mother in this scene, but it is also the culmination of any sexual charge in the book.
This was so nearly a 10/10 book. (When I got to the middle, I was so rapt that I really considered going back to the beginning and read it over again, more carefully - but in the end, my need to know what happened next won out instead.) I loved Maggie's character and the economical unfurling of the truth. My rating was dragged down slightly by a bit of unevenness and some details I didn't feel were resolved satisfactorily - (view spoiler)[Maggie still having Bella's birth certificate; no explanation of how on earth Maggie was ever able to afford to buy a house in central London (hide spoiler)] - and I would have preferred certain things about Maggie's background to be a little less predictable.
When Maggie says: 'it's hard, this business of being with others', she might be summing up the whole story. In My House is a book about the difficulties inherent in relating to other people, the conflict between different types of feelings and motivations, the instability of family relationships: alongside Maggie's story about getting to know Anja, there runs the tale of her own past, providing a mostly fascinating contrast to her present-day life. When a line from Anja near the end throws Maggie's whole account into question, it almost seems like an aside - Maggie's possible unreliability has become secondary to the specifics and the small observations of her story, her life. She's a character who will stay with me for a long time. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Translated from Korean, this is the kind of story that's hard to define; a sort of character study, I suppose, of the titular vegetarian (though the diet she chooses to follow is actually vegan), the inscrutable Yeong-hye. The book is made up of three 'acts', each observing Yeong-hye from the point of view of a different person - her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. In her husband's version, she's the very picture of dull domesticity, a woman he has chosen specifically because she's plain and boring. In her brother-in-law's, she's recognisable, but interpreted in a wildly different way - an always-calm enigma with a unique sense of self-possession. In her sister's - perhaps unsurprisingly the most complicated - she's two things at once, a victim and a manipulator, an emaciated psychiatric patient who is nevertheless perfectly capable of controlling (and often frustrating) those around her.
While it's intriguing from the beginning, the second part of the novel is where the story really comes alive. It depicts Yeong-hye's brother-in-law, a character known simply as J, succumbing to an intense erotic obsession with her. He has long envisioned an art project, a potential magnum opus, which involves a woman's body being painted with huge, elaborate flowers, and after discovering by chance that Yeong-hye still has a 'Mongolian mark' - a type of birthmark that usually vanishes in childhood - his lust for her becomes bound up with his artistic obsession; as the pages turn he becomes more and more convinced that she is the only possible subject. At points this narrative has a feverish sexual charge, but at the same time it shows Yeong-hye rejecting any such objectification - in J's words, she has 'a body from which all desire had been eliminated', yet he is unable to stop desiring her, and that desire is expressed in two inextricable ways, sexual and artistic. She happily participates in his art project (view spoiler)[(and ultimately sleeps with him) (hide spoiler)], but she's detached from what it means to him, simply indulging his cravings. It's hard to say what makes this - the juxtaposition of erotic scenes and, well, anti-eroticism - work so well, as of course it's not a matter of merely saying it. It's surely symbolic that Yeong-hye's body literally becomes a blank canvas on which J paints; the most explicit expression of a theme running through the novel.
It seemed enough for her to just deal with whatever it was that came her way, calmly and without fuss. Or perhaps it was simply that things were happening inside her, terrible things, which no one else could even guess at, and thus it was impossible for her to engage with everyday life at the same time. If so, she would naturally have no energy left, not just for curiosity or interest but indeed for any meaningful response to all the humdrum minutiae that went on on the surface. What suggested to him that this might be the case was that, on occasion, her eyes would seem to reflect a kind of violence that could not simply be dismissed as passivity or idiocy or indifference, and which she would appear to be struggling to suppress. Just then she was staring down at her feet, her hands wrapped around the mug, shoulders hunched like a baby chick trying to get warm. And yet she didn't look at all pitiful sitting there; instead, it made her appear uncommonly hard and self-contained, so much so that anyone watching would feel uneasy, and want to look away.
We know from the first part of the novel that Yeong-hye has decided to reject not only meat, but a great deal of food in general, following a series of gruesome, bloody dreams. Toward the end, when the narrative focus switches to her sister In-hye, we see where this has taken her; she is close to death. Yet we sense she's still in control of her fate, playing a game those around her are oblivious to, as she has throughout the novel. Her steely reserve, the 'hard and self-contained' quality that J sees, is maintained to the end. While books that skirt around their main characters, seeing them only through others' eyes, often make that central character shallow and unbelievable as a result, The Vegetarian triumphs in its portrayal of Yeong-hye. She's always the most important figure in the story, though there's a clear sense of others projecting their expectations, wishes, insecurities onto her. (In the first act, she's only 'my wife'; a role, not a name.)
It's hard to put into words what makes The Vegetarian so compelling, but it's a truly spellbinding story which flows beautifully; it has an atmosphere that's almost completely unique. It's equally hard to pin down what it's really about. Food, sex, art, asceticism, the nature of desire, the power of determining one's own identity? Or of self-destruction? The relationship between people and nature is a recurring motif - one that reaches its climax when In-hye pays her last visit to Yeong-hye, the latter now seeming to believe she is becoming a tree, while In-hye is plagued by memories of her sister and thoughts of her wandering the forest. In-hye is drawn to a destructive part of her own self - and to the dark, elemental power represented by the mountain where she walks at night. Like the cleverly designed UK cover, nature in this book is at first glance benign; at second utterly macabre. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
We wouldn't mention how glamorous it felt to say we were bored, and how in the dark we got chill bumps up and down our arms at the idea that this was
We wouldn't mention how glamorous it felt to say we were bored, and how in the dark we got chill bumps up and down our arms at the idea that this was life, and life smelled like peach carpet spray and cinnamon chewing gum and cheap-flavored wine, all backwashed up.
The stories in Daddy's are like diamonds (tiny, rock-hard, but dazzling) or sparklers (bright, brief, dangerous if you get too close). They could be summed up by picking any line out at random, but the above - the concluding sentence of the stream-of-consciousness, first-person-plural 'Fifteen' - just says everything about the feel of Hunter's writing. It has a character all its own, one composed of junk food, sex, emptiness, disgust and the sort of things you think are glamorous and beautiful when you're a teenager and you've grown up dirt-poor and don't know any better. It's stupendous; it's disgusting. It feels a bit like it's set in an alternate version of our world, albeit a very similar one, only slightly closer to the apocalypse (and you'd be forgiven for thinking Circle K only exists in Hunter's universe). Hunter's description of her influences here - 'Cormac McCarthy, the Drive-by Truckers, the art of Wes Freed, murder TV shows' - makes perfect sense; she mentions Amelia Gray, too, whose Threats I was reminded of when reading Don't Kiss Me. The subtitle of Daddy's is '24 fictions by Lindsay Hunter', and 'fictions' does indeed seem like a more appropriate term for these fragments of lives that feel like small broken pieces of something much bigger....more
This isn't really a review. To what extent can you actually review a 'choose your own adventure' book anyway? The nature of Bus Station: Unbound puts me in a curious position: I've read the book four times, but I can't tell you how it ends. Not because I wasn't paying attention or because I don't want to spoil it, but because each time, the ending was different. Not just the ending: almost everything was different, other than the first few pages. The plot is dependent on the options you select, and the chain of possibilities in Bus Station: Unbound is a long and labyrinthine one.
Here's what I can tell you. The setting is Preston bus station, an imposing brutalist building that, in the hands of the authors, becomes a deeply sinister - and possibly inescapable - place. The protagonist (you) is a young woman who's returned to Preston after a period of time away, a failed attempt at escape, and is estranged from her family; but her (your) character is as enigmatic and slippery as the story itself. For example, there are frequent references to a tragedy that occurred in the town some years ago, claiming the lives of a group of children that included the protagonist's brother - but even after several reads through, I'm still not sure of the circumstances surrounding this. This sort of mystery will keep you wanting to go back to the book to try and uncover more details and answers.
While hints of weirdness (though not necessarily explicit horror) pervade the unpredictable atmosphere, the nature of the book means it's hard to say much else. Similarly, it isn't really possible to give away any spoilers unless I tell you exactly which choices I made at every turn - but just in case, I won't tell you about the endings I got on each try. What I will say is that the length of the story can vary from a short story to a long novella depending on your choices. And a hint, one the book itself actually gives you at certain points: 'educating yourself' is a safer way to negotiate this strange world than simply trying to explore.
Bus Station: Unbound is available to read online here. It's actually free to access, but the publisher asks that you make a donation through PayPal. As much as I love getting things for free, I think this is fair enough given the effort that must have been involved in actually, practically making it work - the publishers have said on Twitter that it has something close to 3 million possible permutations (!!!) (I went with £4, around the price it was originally slated to retail for on Kindle, which has proved undoable due to the complexity of the interlinked setup.)
If you like weird fiction, ghost stories and subtle horror, independent publishing collective Curious Tales should definitely be on your radar. This innovative, interactive novel is the second thing I've read from them - following the ghost story collection Poor Souls' Light - and I found it just as unique and interesting. It definitely offers something quite different from your usual reading experience....more
(2.5, rounded up to 3.) Minette Walters' entry in the Hammer Horror novella series is a tale of domestic horror rather than the supernatural sort - al(2.5, rounded up to 3.) Minette Walters' entry in the Hammer Horror novella series is a tale of domestic horror rather than the supernatural sort - although a pinch of the latter is added in to spice it up. It tells the story of Muna, an orphaned girl brought to the UK illegally and forced to work as a slave for a relatively wealthy family. Having endured terrible abuse, she finds her fortunes changing when her captors' son goes missing. She's finally allowed to masquerade as their daughter, and sets about getting an increasingly sadistic form of revenge. There are no real twists or surprises, but the story maintains suspense nevertheless, partly because you wonder whether Muna is going to get away with it, and partly because of hints that some other, darker, force is manipulating her; is this demonic influence real or a delusion?
Some of the Hammer books have felt fully-formed; others like they've been quickly written and forced to fit into the horror genre, however tenuously. The Cellar belongs in the latter category. It's a tense read, and had me hooked until I knew how it ended, but the ending itself seemed a bit like the author thought 'oh well, this'll do'. Mentioning something about the Devil doesn't make it an effective horror story. (view spoiler)[And how was it at all possible that the police wouldn't have noticed the hidden room-sized safe that... apparently had some sort of label on the outside explaining what it was and how it operated?! (hide spoiler)] I remember enjoying some of Walters' crime novels when I was in my early teens, and I also remember them being quite gory and twisted, so it's easy to see why she might be thought a natural fit for this series. The Cellar is probably one of the weaker offerings from this imprint; but, thanks to its gripping plot and how quickly I was able to finish it, it wasn't entirely a waste of time. ["br"]>["br"]>...more
There are some truly brilliant stories in this collection, but really it's more about the details than the whole. That goes for the stories themselvesThere are some truly brilliant stories in this collection, but really it's more about the details than the whole. That goes for the stories themselves, as well as the style. The best - such as 'Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula', 'Plans' and 'Heart' - are short and broken-up snapshots of the lives of dysfunctional characters; weird, dirty and bleak, but really, really gorgeous anyway. The high-concept stories don't always work quite as well, partly because you're constantly being propelled back to the striking beauty and effectiveness of particular sentences rather than whatever they're skirting around. Occasionally, Hunter's depictions of everyday discomfort stray further into more explicit disgust and border on bizarro, for example 'After', which begins 'After the apocalypse...' and goes on to, mainly, list outlandishly grotesque sights.
The showpiece story, the longest, is 'Our Man', which - seriously - reminded me of Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp, with its fragmentary and surreal narration, stray threads and recurring characters, its side-on, non-linear examination of an indistinct and possibly imagined crime. Like Antwerp, I wasn't sure whether it was nonsense or a work of genius, or, of course, both. A more general comparison for the whole collection is Amelia Gray's Threats - equally off-kilter and vaguely disturbing/disturbingly vague, with a similar overarching voice - although I enjoyed this more.
I probably did this book a disservice by hungrily reading most of the stories at once. Mostly bite-sized - there are 26 of them in this 193-page collection - Hunter's stories are so sharp and bright that they are best devoured individually, spread out between other reading. ...more
Alison Wonderland is one of those books I'd had knocking around the back of my mind for quite a while, without knowing exactly where I had heard aboutAlison Wonderland is one of those books I'd had knocking around the back of my mind for quite a while, without knowing exactly where I had heard about it or even what I'd heard about it. I'd filed it away in a vague category entitled 'I read something good about this on a blog' - of course, I can't remember what the blog was or what the 'something good' was. Having first heard about it a couple of years ago, I'd assumed it was a relatively recent release, but once I started reading, it didn't take me long to start thinking it was such a quintessentially 90s British story that it had to have been written earlier. Sure enough, I soon found it was originally published in 1999 (although Amazon gives the publication date as 2011, which is presumably when it was reissued and enjoyed the small resurgence in popularity that allowed me to notice it).
Trying to establish the characteristics of this 90s-British-fiction quality, I came up with the following: - Plotless stories within a really quite fluffy book. I think I notice this because you don't really find it now: 'light' books are almost always plot-led genre fiction - thrillers, crime, romance, etc, or at least they are presented as fitting into one of those categories. This is definitely not a literary novel, but what is it? The mystery isn't really a mystery, and turns out to be a red herring, ultimately seeming kind of parodic. The romantic subplot, which initially appears to be a foregone conclusion, is left completely open with no satisfying resolution (or even anything resembling an ending) for either party. - Characters living in London while either unemployed or doing jobs that are hardly jobs at all, with no reference made to how they're affording it. - The 'randomness'. Taron is a dippy, flaky character who jumps between various faiths/beliefs, claims her mother is a witch and makes up outlandish stories about her past. Alison and Jeff's relationship revolves around a) him writing her quirky poems and b) each of them sending the other newspaper clippings of obscure and ridiculous stories. Even the postman is psychic. I know cute, whimsical stuff is still in vogue at the moment, but this randomness has a slightly harder, darker quality to it. Partly because of: - Loads of casual references to drugs - and talk of 'clubbing', which now seems like a generally outdated concept. (At one point Alison goes to a 'singles bar'.) - Mentions of music, TV shows and shops that date the story very specifically (okay, I'm sure this isn't specific to books from the 90s, but that sort of namedropping in this sort of fiction seems to have started in the 90s).
I've made the comparison before, but this really did remind me of early Scarlett Thomas. Like Thomas's Lily Pascale, Alison Temple is an investigator... of sorts, pursuing a mystery, of sorts, except she doesn't really know what it is, and the story ends up being more about her friend Taron's efforts to find an abandoned baby (not a specific one, just any abandoned baby. Don't ask). Maybe this isn't so much a 90s thing as something specific to a handful of books (and perhaps an indication of an underdeveloped style?), but another reaction I had to both this and the Lily Pascale books was that the stories feel like they're taking place in a self-contained, not-quite-real universe. Nothing really seems to have any consequences. When Alison and Taron actually do find an abandoned baby, the idea that it arrived 'by magic' isn't quite given enough credence to be taken seriously, but nor is there any question of establishing where the baby really came from. It's simply accepted into their lives (with no suggestion of any potential legal issues, or indeed financial ones).
I enjoyed this, but I have to steal the term David used in his review and say it's an oddity, one I'm hesitant to recommend. It was perfect as a quick, light, endearingly strange break in between reading bits of academic texts, but I'm not sure I would have liked it that much in another context. Although it did lead me to discover 'You'll Never Know' by Hi-Gloss, which I've been listening to lots ever since....more
Bradstreet Gate is about three Harvard students, Georgia, Charlie and Alice; a professor, Rufus Storrow; and a murdered girl, Julie Patel. It opens teBradstreet Gate is about three Harvard students, Georgia, Charlie and Alice; a professor, Rufus Storrow; and a murdered girl, Julie Patel. It opens ten years after Julie's death, with a journalist doorstepping Georgia and telling her there have been new developments in the (still unsolved) case. We then flash back to the beginning of all this, to the immediate aftermath of the murder, and chapters devoted to each character explore what led them to Harvard. About half the book dwells on what happened there, and the rest of it follows the three main characters through the next ten years, tracing the various ways their relationships with each other and their involvement with Storrow have affected the trajectories of their lives.
Bradstreet Gate reminded me very much of Rebecca Scherm's Unbecoming, another debut from this year, because of the cold, clinical way both books render their characters. Looking back on my review of Unbecoming, I can see many similarities in my reactions to the two - I found them both to have an empty, depressing feel, yet felt I needed to see the stories through to the end, and read them relatively quickly despite neither seeming, on the surface, especially compelling. While I found Bradstreet Gate better-crafted than Unbecoming - the characterisation is fairly consistent, at least - I felt both shared an elegant style that, while admirable in a way, would be much improved by the addition of some emotional messiness and some actual humanity to the characters. (I feel admirable is very much the right word for it; it's like something in a glass case; you might look at it and appreciate it, but it is held at a distance from you and lacks movement, excitement.) (view spoiler)[Even Alice's anorexia and associated mental health problems are related in such a detached manner that it's difficult to feel much for her, though she is certainly the most sympathetic of the three protagonists. (hide spoiler)]
Something that frustrated me about this book was the way it kept hinting at fascinating subplots/ideas which weren't explored any further. Some of these were: the issues of potential racism brought up by Storrow's style of teaching and the way the students reacted to this (I was interested in how similar this seemed to the attitudes now seen so often online, particularly over the past couple of years, and curious to know whether this was an accurate representation of the way things were going in a university like Harvard in the 1990s - is the Tumblr culture that constantly rips into the potential 'problematic' actually way behind the curve? Or is the author writing very up-to-date attitudes into scenes set 20 years ago?); the hints of sexual tension between Georgia and Alice; the substance of Georgia's affair with Storrow, which I never fully understood; (view spoiler)[the suggestion that both Georgia and Storrow might have been sexually abused, or at least exploited, in childhood, by members of their families; the question of whether Storrow's wife and children really existed; the murder itself, who killed Julie and why (hide spoiler)]. I constantly felt like the most interesting things were happening in some parallel story. (Meanwhile, some of the actual subplots - Charlie's internet security business, for example - made me want to fall asleep.)
This is on the Secret-History-esque shelf because it involves students at an elite university (one of whom is an 'outsider', from a relatively poor background), a charismatic professor, and a murder. In terms of style, however, it couldn't be more different from TSH, and from that starting point, the story has a broader scope. It isn't a coming-of-age/university story - instead, it strives for the feel of a saga, and in doing so it loses all the advantages of using a prestigious university as a (partial) setting in the first place. Not once did I get any sense of the atmosphere of Harvard. This style - I don't know what I would call it - sophisticated, emotionless - might be technically good, and some might find it brilliant, but it's a turn-off for me. This may well be a very accomplished debut; I just couldn't forge the sort of connection with the story that would be necessary to lift it above three stars. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
**spoiler alert** This is one of my problems with YA: in a lot of YA books, the characters behave like adults. They are more emotionally mature than m**spoiler alert** This is one of my problems with YA: in a lot of YA books, the characters behave like adults. They are more emotionally mature than most people in their late 20s, and often they are not only vastly intelligent, but also have a kind of world-weary wisdom and cynicism that only really develops with age. This usually really puts me off because I find it so unrealistic, and yet the books in which characters act like this seem to be the ones that become the most popular and garner the most praise. Belzhar is a book in which teenagers do the opposite - behave like teenagers and display the maturity and intelligence levels of teenagers - and that seems to have a lot to do with many readers' dislike of it.
One of the main criticisms I've seen levelled at this book is that the main character, Jam (this is short for Jamaica... yeah, I have no idea either) spends a year pining for a boy she had a very short relationship with; and also that when it is revealed that she was never in fact in a real relationship with him, this drains away the reader's sympathy for her and/or makes her 'trauma' pathetic in comparison to the other characters'. But honestly, I felt that the whole situation was if anything more realistic than the way teenagers are usually portrayed in contemporary YA. Jam is fifteen, and when I was around that age I spent much more than a year obsessed, and I mean obsessed, with a boy who had no interest in me; he'd spoken to me maybe a handful of times and when I say 'spoken', I mean saying hello, not conversations. I actually broke up with a boy who wanted to go out with me because of this crush; I completely believed myself to be in love with him. I would stay up all night crying, wailing; I cut myself numerous times. Now, beneath all this there were clearly other issues - the depression that would manifest properly when I was older, and the fact that I'd been bullied at school for years and hated it there - but much of my focus was on this boy, this boy I loved so much I thought I would die because he didn't care about me. So yes, I can believe in the sustained length of Jam's period of grief, and I can believe in the power of her feelings regardless of the nature of her relationship.
The other main issue is the portrayal of Jam's boyfriend, Reeve, who is allegedly British. I mean, you can tell this character is going to be ridiculous from the name alone - as if any British person would call their kid REEVE (well, I'm sure someone has once or twice and some British Reeve is going to pop up in the comments to discredit me like #NOTALLREEVES, but my point is that this is supposed to be an ~unusual, quintessentially British name and yet to any British person it sounds like a stereotypically American one). He also loves the Monty Python parrot sketch, has apparently never heard 'douchebag' as an insult/says Brits actually know that word for its literal meaning, talks about a football match being 'brill' (I don't think anyone in the UK or anywhere has said that since approx. 1994), claims 'tight' means drunk (OK THEN), and says things like 'it's in the OED - the Oxford English Dictionary'. Because he's just SO BRITISH, YOU SEE?! BRITISH!!!!
Perhaps it's because I knew all this before I started the book, but I just found all these details about Reeve funny. Yes, they're completely ridiculous but they didn't make me mad. There's a part of me that thinks it's so unlikely that Wolitzer - an Ivy League-educated author of literary fiction - would write a British character so terribly, it must be deliberate; that perhaps all these stupid things Reeve says and does are just a part of Jam's fantasy of him, her juvenile, media-constructed idea of what a 'perfect British boyfriend' would be like. But Reeve does say and do some of these things in the 'real' memories too. So idk, maybe the author really does know nothing about British people, or maybe she just thought American teenage girls would think it was cute.
The whole premise is silly. Jam and the others are studying at a school for 'emotionally damaged' children or something, but this is obviously a flimsy setup to get all these 'troubled' characters together: they never get any counselling or therapy and nobody ever seems to do anything to address their problems. Jam gets accepted into an exclusive English class and studies Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, so that mentions of Plath and the book can be scattered throughout the narrative (the story itself doesn't really relate to The Bell Jar in any way and is more like a junior version of The Secret History. The most relevant Plath reference is from her poem 'Mad Girl's Love Song' and actually, it's so pertinent I could easily believe the whole premise for Belzhar came from that poem). The 'Special Topics in English' students (is this a Marisha Pessl reference?) write in journals given to them by their ~mysterious~ teacher, and find that the act of doing so results in short, intense visions or experiences, in which they seem to return to their life before whatever their trauma was.
The teenagers in the Special Topics class aren't the most wonderfully well-realised characters, but they are believable as teenagers. They're moody, uncooperative and awkward; their discussion of Plath is basic and shallow; but they're fucked-up 15-year-olds, not university students. I feel almost embarrassed admitting it, but I did feel something for Jam, and that developed even though I knew what the twist would be. In fact, I think her story is emotionally powerful precisely because Reeve doesn't exist. In a reversal of most readers' reactions, I felt more sorry and sad for her when I discovered her delusion than when I thought she had a dead boyfriend. (Side note: questionable whether it really is a delusion/psychotic episode or conscious lies, because she certainly seems to be aware she isn't being honest when she tells the others about Reeve's death. If she believes he loved her and is really dead, then why does she hold all of that back from everyone else, apart from passively agreeing with an assumption someone else makes on their own?) The truth, and the depth of her attachment to the lie, illustrates how lonely and desperate she must have been. That's what packed the emotional punch for me.
I think Belzhar has only been praised by critics in relatively 'highbrow' publications because Wolitzer has previously written literary fiction for adults. From a serious critical perspective, of course little of this book is of value, but I struggle to see how it is worse in that regard than most contemporary YA. Isn't it all emotionally manipulative? Isn't that practically its raison d'être? I may be able to remember how obsessive crushes made me feel when I was fifteen, but I can't recreate the mindset effectively enough to allow me to imagine how this book might have made me feel at that age; maybe I would have found it moving and meaningful or maybe I would have scoffed at it, but either way I can't imagine it would have been damaging in any way. (And it would probably have got me interested in reading Sylvia Plath, at least.)
The bottom line is that I couldn't stop wanting to read bits of this until I was done (I read a lot of it on my phone in between other things because I just had to know what happened) and for some reason, I felt a great deal of affection towards it. Maybe it was just that something about all this hit a chord with me specifically? Who knows.
TL;DR: This book is ridiculous, but I really enjoyed it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ...more
Wolf, Wolf is a lengthy, somewhat convoluted, but highly rewarding story. In simple terms it's about a South African man in his thirties - Mattheüs DuWolf, Wolf is a lengthy, somewhat convoluted, but highly rewarding story. In simple terms it's about a South African man in his thirties - Mattheüs Duiker - and his relationship with his dying father, Benjamin. But it's incredibly dense and frequently strays away from that. It's full of tension, which has no discernible source, and constantly seems to be moving towards a shock that never quite comes. This isn't to say it is in any way disappointing, but it can be an uncomfortable read in an unconventional way. I think the best way to address it is probably by looking at the themes that emerge from the various threads running through the story:
What it means to be a man. The blurb for Wolf, Wolf poses the question: 'how should a man be?' This is a particularly pertinent question for Mattheüs because of his sexuality - not just the fact that he is gay (and the fact that his father has never been able to truly accept this), but also (and, really, more importantly) his addiction to internet porn, which controls his life to such an extent that it frequently takes precedence over his real-life partner, Jack. Mattheüs' obsession is in fact so dominant that, while the porn he watches is explicitly detailed, his actual sex life with Jack is touched on so lightly that I was nearing the end of the book before I realised they actually did sleep together after all. He spends his nights searching for 'sex ever more bent and battered to conform to a closed circuit where only he and the screen in front of him exist', sometimes even seeing his father's needs as distractions from this preoccupation.
As the story progresses, Mattheüs is increasingly forced to confront the realities of manhood as opposed to boyhood - something he has long avoided, apparently spending his twenties doing nothing of note apart from travelling and ostensibly 'having fun', although he rarely seems to have actually been happy. Now back in the family home, he feels infantilised but is unwilling to leave, unable to conceive of a life elsewhere. His lifestyle has been enabled by his father's wealth -a privilege Mattheüs has taken advantage of yet never fully embraced, having rejected the opportunity to take up a role in the successful Duiker luxury car dealership, partly due to a conviction that he lacks an essential masculinity or is somehow just too 'other' to participate in the business, to step into Benjamin's shoes.
The relationship between a father and his son. Both Mattheüs and Benjamin spend the whole of the story on a journey towards accepting and understanding one another. This is not always easy, and nor is it necessarily ultimately successful. Mattheüs has selfish motivations in wanting to repair their relationship - he needs money to start a business, and dreams of an inheritance that will include the family home - and his unwillingness to share his father's care with neighbours or other family members often seems to owe more to this than to love or a sense of duty. Benjamin dotes on his son, but cannot properly embrace who he is, or hide the fact that he is disappointed by Mattheüs' inability to take over the family business or produce children who will carry on the Duiker name. Despite all this, Venter's depiction of the relationship between the two is heartfelt, touching, honest. There is a closeness between them that, while stilted, awkward and sometimes uncomfortable, highlights the real love underscoring their interactions. Mattheüs' protectiveness and devotion to his father's care is a way for him to win Benjamin's acceptance before it's too late.
Throughout the book, the main narrative is punctuated by monologues from Benjamin, messages he has recorded on a tape recorder for Mattheüs to listen to. In these he offers his ruminations on masculinity and is honest about his feelings towards Mattheüs in a way he cannot be face-to-face. Communication (or miscommunication) in general is a theme of its own. Unsure how to cope with Mattheüs' porn problem, Jack takes to Facebook to express his feelings, posting a passive-aggressive stream of photographs and pointed public questions. (In fact, 'facebook' - no capital F - is a verb in this novel; definitely the first time I've come across this in a book.) The couple rarely talk about anything of significance - at one point Jack is driven to ask 'am I in this room for you, Matt? Do you at least know that I'm here?' They don't even talk about Benjamin's reluctance to allow Jack into the Duiker home - this is instead addressed, somewhat surreally, by Jack donning a disguise consisting of a wolf's head mask. Both men know this isn't really stopping Benjamin (who, in any case, has been left blind by his illness) from realising that Jack is there; instead it becomes a game between them, which gives the book its title.
Dreams vs. ambitions; dreams vs. reality. In the first half of the novel, Mattheüs strives towards his dream of opening a takeaway serving healthy fast food. He is obsessed with the idea that his father might write him a cheque big enough to fund the business, but too crippled by uncertainty and shame to ask for it - or even intimate his need for it. Several times, he makes false starts towards obtaining the money elsewhere; when it seems he's on the verge of actually attaining it, he panics, sabotages his own chances, and flees. What becomes clear from all of this is that the takeaway is a dream, not an ambition. Like so many things in this story, it's a symbol. Nevertheless, it does eventually become real, and in naming it 'Duiker's', Mattheüs makes a step towards continuing the family name in his own way. The business represents a compromise between what Benjamin wants Mattheüs to achieve, and Mattheüs' desire to fulfil his father's hopes for him on his own terms.
(An aside: while this doesn't add anything to my review, I couldn't help noticing the parallels between this and The Curator by Jacques Strauss, also published this year. Both are set in South Africa, and focus on male protagonists whose sexuality is key to the plot. In both cases, the protagonist is caring for his ailing father; both books open with a scene demonstrating this. In both books, the son wants or needs a substantial amount of money from his father in order to start a business venture. Both even feature a secondary character who works as a teacher at a boys' school. They do, however, move in very different directions from there, with Strauss exploring the psyche of his character in great detail while Venter focuses more intensely on relationships and family.)
Towards the end of Wolf, Wolf, things become ever more horrible for the embattled Mattheüs, who sinks deeper into failure and despair. The book ends on a poignant note as he resolves to change his behaviour towards Jack, to make up for past mistakes, not knowing that his dreams are - once again - impossible. There are no safe, satisfying conclusions to be drawn from the stories of Mattheüs, Jack and Benjamin. Wolf, Wolf itself, though, is a satisfying novel, a potent depiction of one family that also acts as a broader portrait of contemporary manhood and post-apartheid South Africa....more
When I first heard about this book, it had very little in the way of a description: just a couple of lines referring to how it 'tells a story of fame,When I first heard about this book, it had very little in the way of a description: just a couple of lines referring to how it 'tells a story of fame, love, and legacy through the propulsive rise of an iconoclastic artist', using a 'chorus of voices'. That was enough to pique my interest. But the character of Sophie Stark is a young film director, so it's less like Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World than I'd initially assumed.
That 'chorus of voices' is created by six narrators who take it in turn to talk about Sophie, each chapter introducing a new voice and describing a different period of her life or career. #1 opens strong, with an instantly captivating story from Allison, an actress discovered by Sophie who also becomes her lover. (I'd have preferred to read a whole book about Allison.) #2 is also excellent: it's told from the POV of Sophie's brother, Robbie, and charts her early development as a filmmaker while at university. In between the chapters are reviews of Sophie's films, all by the same critic. The voice of these doesn't really ring true, but I liked the occasional change to a different medium. It was around the middle of #3 (Jacob, a musician Sophie shoots a promo for) that I realised why the book wasn't quite working for me: the stories were all good in themselves, but they just weren't making me care about Sophie.
Because Sophie is rarely heard from (and even then it's just her words as remembered by others), she emerges as more of a conduit for other people's desires than a rounded character, a believable person. Twisted and broken up and reformed through the stories of those who knew her, she is not seen truthfully - naturally, of course, but this makes it a struggle to form any image of her beyond someone else's fantasy, or rather the multiple fantasies of multiple someone-elses. She emerges as a character who is complicated, but not necessarily believable or nuanced, in her contradictions, and her arc is ultimately more one-note than it should/could be. The ending seemed limp, and I felt as if there should be more - some wider appraisal of her life.
The blurb makes references to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and Where'd You Go, Bernadette. I get the Goon Squad comparison, but more than the others mentioned, this reminded me of Sara Taylor's recently-published debut The Shore. Partly because it's essentially a set of short stories with a common theme - here it's a character, in The Shore it's a setting. But also because of my reaction: I enjoyed it, found it compulsive, read it very quickly and am confident in giving it a high-ish rating; yet I find it hard to actually identify many major positives in my overall assessment of it. There are some beautiful moments in this book, and I read it with great eagerness to know what would happen next, it's just that in the end it is quite a flimsy story, as a whole. For the deeper, more mature and intellectually engaging version, seek out The Blazing World....more
Enormous fun - a faux-academic text/true crime account, replete with footnotes, about the disappearance of a fictional pop star, that takes numerous dEnormous fun - a faux-academic text/true crime account, replete with footnotes, about the disappearance of a fictional pop star, that takes numerous detours into various ideas, conspiracies, and subplots. It's ostensibly the story of Molly Metropolis (a very Lady Gaga-esque figure) going missing, closely followed by a fan who was looking for her, music journalist Caitlin Taer, but it spins off into an exploration of situationism, psychogeography, and Chicago's public transport system. Admittedly the examination of such concepts is all very surface-level, but it's still clear the book has aspirations towards something more complex than a conspiracy thriller. These diversions and the obvious riffs on real celebrities' images are themselves a demonstration of the oft-referenced situationist concept of détournement, while the titular ghost network is, unexpectedly, a map of every possible permutation of 'the L', Chicago's elevated railway - real, proposed, and imagined. The Ghost Network itself is supposed to be an existing book, written about the mysteries of Metropolis and Taer by an English professor named Cyrus Archer, found and edited by a fictionalised version of Catie Disabato after his disappearance. It's all very meta - this-within-this-within-this. It's also completely absorbing, addictive, funny and wonderfully energetic.
I'm not really sure the book will reach its perfect audience while being described as 'Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl for adults' - that's pretty wide of the mark; while it frequently talks about Tumblr fan culture, etc, readers who loved Fangirl won't necessarily want to read a book that goes on about a) Guy Debord and b) trains for pages at a time. Amy hit the nail on the head much more accurately with her comment on my rating - 'a little bit Scarlett Thomas, a little bit Marisha Pessl'. Like Pessl's Night Film, this is a clue-driven, conspiracy-laden adventure that revolves around an invented pop-culture figure. Like Thomas's fiction, it touches on a lot of big ideas while remaining entirely accessible, light in tone and fun to read.
I'd been eagerly awaiting this since reading an extract - the epilogue and first chapter - in Penguin Random House's Spring 2015 Debut Fiction Sampler. That sample was so good that I ended up buying The Ghost Network on the day it came out and reading the entire thing that same day. The rest of it maybe didn't quite live up to the opening - but that's mainly because I wished it had been (and think it easily could have been) twice the length - and it's not as good as Night Film, which has a similar-ish premise. But it's still by far the best new book I have read this year. ...more
I loved the first book of Louise Welsh's Plauge Times trilogy, A Lovely Way To Burn, so this sequel was an automatic shoo-in for my Most Anticipated oI loved the first book of Louise Welsh's Plauge Times trilogy, A Lovely Way To Burn, so this sequel was an automatic shoo-in for my Most Anticipated of 2015 list. I was mildly surprised, but still excited, to learn it would focus on a different character. A Lovely Way To Burn was all about gutsy TV presenter Stevie Flint; Death is a Welcome Guest is about a stand-up comedian, Magnus McFall.
This one doesn't start where the last one left off. Instead it opens as the spread of the virus known as the Sweats, which we already know will eventually engulf the country (assuming 'we' read the first book of the trilogy), is in its early stages. Magnus is en route to a gig, as warm-up act to the obnoxious Johnny Dongo; an afflicted boy collapses onto the railway before the show. After a spat with Johnny, Magnus gets arrested - there's a convoluted scene involving him rescuing a girl from an ostentatiously nefarious would-be rapist who turns out (a bit implausibly) to be an MP, then being caught in the act by a gang of men who assume he's the girl's attacker - and finds himself imprisoned in an overflowing prison where both inmates and staff are dropping like flies. He forms a precarious alliance with Jeb, a long-term prisoner whose crimes are, for most of the book, unknown. Magnus's aim is to get back to his hometown on Orkney, where he's convinced he will find his family safe and well, and so the two set off on a potentially treacherous trek across the country. Then they meet a gun-toting military priest who presides over a community at crumbling Tanqueray House, and it all goes a bit 28 Days Later.
Unlike A Lovely Way To Burn - which had me completely hooked from the outset - this story is really slow to get going. The prison riot is interminable, and totally lacking in suspense since, if Magnus and Jeb didn't escape, there'd be no story at all. At this point I was seriously worried I wasn't going to like the book; but once they're out of prison and on the road, it picks up.
I've spent ages trying to work out whether this is objectively a better book than A Lovely Way To Burn. I think it probably is. It's less melodramatic; sure, it has a dramatic climax, but not quite the crazed, almost horror-movie-esque scenes of its predecessor. It's more contemplative and spends a greater amount of time delving into its main character's state of mind, examining the psychological implications of the virus - and, to some extent, the political fallout. (I should also mention that it can certainly be read as a standalone novel, although it perhaps has something in common with the second part of many trilogies in that much of the content feels like filler.) The best moments come towards the end, when all the tension that's been building throughout the story combines with the strange undercurrents in Tanqueray village and creates a lurid, horrible climax. It's telling that these scenes are probably the least believable in the book and yet they are the most emotionally compelling.
While I loved Stevie, Magnus left me feeling indifferent. Because this story is less plot-driven, it sacrifices the great advantages of the first book's crime thriller structure - the brilliant tension, the need to know what would happen next, the clues and revelations leading the protagonist from one place, one person to the next. I had no real investment in Magnus's quest to get back to his family, because the narrative didn't want me to care about that. (view spoiler)[Sure enough, it ends up becoming a footnote - by the time Mangus reaches Orkney, both he and the reader know his family aren't going to be alive. (hide spoiler)] Jeb is a deliberately offputting character, the whole point being that he will end up a scapegoat and that the reader will be prompted to wonder what they'd do in Magnus's position, whether they'd bother to help him. But honestly, I didn't find this dilemma that interesting either.
Death is a Welcome Guest is a good, solid read that does a decent job of advancing the story arc of the Plague Times trilogy. But I think perhaps it's more scene-setting for the final part than anything else. I'll definitely be reading the last installment, with the hope that it returns to the irresistible excitement of the first.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Have you ever read a book so hungrily, and quickly, that afterwards it feels like a hallucination, dream or nightmare? Perhaps a less melodramatic comparison would be a film: some stories make you feel more like you've spent a couple of hours watching a movie, seeing it all play out vividly right in front of you, than a few days on-and-off reading a book. I breezed through Things We Have in Common in just a few hours, during which my absorption in the story heightened to increasingly feverish levels, and afterwards it felt like something I had seen - almost physically experienced - rather than read. I had this mental picture of the setting, clouded in a summer haze, that still lingers. I could see the colour palette of the film version.
Yasmin is fifteen years old and unhappy. She's friendless and the victim of school bullies; she has a strained relationship with her stepfather, and therefore also with her mother; she's overweight, and endures visits to a patronising dietitian whose advice she ignores anyway. The shining light in her life is her obsession - a combination of idolatry and desire - with a radiant classmate, Alice Taylor. We meet Yasmin when she is staring at Alice - but also watching someone else do the same. This is the first 'thing she has in common' with her co-observer, a stranger with whom she immediately feels a bond. But this person is no fellow pupil: he is a middle-aged man.
Samuel, as he turns out to be called - although there's some ambiguity about whether this is his real name - is a chameleon-like character who moves from sinister to thoroughly innocuous so swiftly and frequently that it's (no doubt intentionally) impossible to get an angle on who he is. Yasmin's initial, childish idea that he's a predatory paedophile seems to be upended when she actually meets him, finding instead a dog-lover whose mother has recently died - lonely, awkward, but apparently harmless. Yet it's precisely the potential of dubious qualities that draw Yasmin to him. Like many an outsider, she recognises a kindred spirit. And, like many an obsessive, she nurtures fantasies of rescuing the object of her affection in such a grand and public manner that she will naturally receive adoration in return. Her complicated attraction to Samuel, then, is partly a matter of wanting to protect her beloved Alice from a perceived threat, but at the same time wishing harm upon her so Yasmin can swoop in and save the day. In the middle of all this, the lines start blurring around who it is that Yasmin idolises, as her focus shifts from Alice to Samuel and back again. The chain of events that results turns this into a uniquely twisted coming-of-age story and a redefinition of 'be careful what you wish for'.
I spent much of this book wondering what it was that the narrator's voice reminded me of, unable to put my finger on it, and then towards the end I realised: it was Jacqueline Wilson, specifically a book of hers that was a childhood favourite of mine, The Suitcase Kid. I know it might seem like I'm insulting Kavanagh by comparing her novel to a book for pre-teen kids, but I mean it as a compliment - the author captures the voice of a young girl in such a way that her narrative has the ring of authenticity, but also works very well as entertainment. (And I always loved Wilson's style and characters, anyway.) It's because of this lightness that it's quite easy to sidestep the doubts you will inevitably have about Yasmin (is the simultaneous existence of such naivety and such manipulative power really believable for a gauche 15-year-old?) and simply allow yourself to be drawn into the irresistible flow of the story. The other, and for me more obvious, reference point is Jenn Ashworth's A Kind of Intimacy: Yasmin is, in more ways than one, a junior version of Ashworth's anti-heroine, Annie, and Things We Have in Common is the same kind of darkly humorous character study.
(When I started writing this, I'd forgotten the description used in the publisher's catalogue - it referred to Things We Have in Common as 'Sue Townsend meets Zoë Heller', which, of course, also works.)
This is a really strong debut novel, a subtle masterclass in character-building with a teenage voice so genuine that Yasmin really comes alive. It's rare for me to read a book quickly and yet find its characters and other details only become more solid in my head as time passes, but that's exactly what has happened with Things We Have in Common - partly, I think, because Yasmin's narration makes the book so easy to take in that you don't realise quite how expertly Kavanagh is crafting her characters and setting up the plot's final revelations. Watch out for this one: it deserves to be a hit (... and would also make a great film)....more
When I get a new book, I always read the first couple of pages straight away. This is not because I have any intention of actually reading the book in full; it's just a habit (and, on Kindle, I do it to get rid of those 'new' badges that sit next to the titles if I don't). When I received the electronic ARC of Catherine Chanter's debut novel, The Well, I scanned the opening, as I routinely do - but that was all it took for me to be completely and utterly hooked. By that night, I was almost a third of the way through, and I'd finished the book within days.
The titular Well is a house, an idyllic country retreat discovered by Ruth and Mark Ardingly, a harassed fortysomething couple seeking escape from London. So idyllic that you just know the place can't possibly be as perfect as it seems. But we're not in the realm of horror or gothic fiction (and while that initial set-up might seem mundane and domestic, that's where the normality ends). In actual fact there is nothing wrong with The Well - it really is 'paradise' - and that's the problem. While the rest of the country suffers ceaseless drought, The Well flourishes. Rain continues to fall on the house and its land, crops are abundant and livestock thrives. Antipathy towards the Ardinglys starts with the locals - lifelong farmers jealous of the newcomers' effortlessly huge harvest, while their enterprises fail - but the longer the drought lasts, the more notorious they become. They have, as Mark comments, what everyone else wants but can only dream of, and those benefits come at a high price: their ostracised status gradually becomes total isolation.
Eventually, Ruth and Mark let in some visitors: first Ruth's flighty daughter Angie, a former drug addict, with her young son Lucien and a band of hippyish travellers; and second, a small group of nuns. The nuns are the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho - this being a 'resurrection plant' capable of surviving long periods of drought, which comes 'miraculously' back to life when brought into contact with moisture. (It really exists, although apparently the name 'Rose of Jericho' is used for several species with the same attributes.) It isn't really clear where they have come from or how the group formed, but they (quite literally) worship Ruth, and advocate a totally female-focused form of Christianity which she starts to find persuasive; the men, they say, are poisoning the land. Their arrival is the beginning of the end. Mark is frustrated and desperate; he becomes embittered and violent. Ruth is torn between her devotion to Lucien, the son she never had, and her new-found faith, the ecstasy she discovers at worship with the Sisters. And through all of this there is Sister Amelia - calm, ruthlessly dedicated, and incredibly sinister.
What's most intriguing about the story - and here I can loop back to what I found so immediately compelling about the first few pages - is that in the present day, all of this is gone. Not only is Ruth alone, she is returning to The Well from a short stay in prison, and is to be kept under house arrest. It is from the vantage point of this situation that Ruth tells the story of this place, all of it seen through her eyes, and all pieced together around her new life: reacquainting herself with this house that's been both heaven and hell for her, getting to know her three male guards, forming an unlikely friendship with a visiting priest. The Well is Ruth's narrative, a patchwork of memories too painful to forget and those too painful to remember. It is a curious mixture of a story being told, a personal history being recalled, and a reminder being related to a close friend, or even to oneself; that is a person who already knows many of the most important facts. Ruth rations some of the details, and sometimes talks as if the reader or listener will naturally know what she is referring to. This bitty doling out of information can seem frustrating at first, but this is a book in which patience is rewarded, although in some areas - the nature of Ruth and Amelia's relationship, the questions surrounding Mark's behaviour with Lucien - ambiguity persists through to the end.
There's a passage I want to quote because I think it is a perfect example of Ruth's voice, but I can't because my copy is an uncorrected proof. If I remember, I'll come back here and add it after the book is published. This passage is nothing important in terms of the plot - it's just Ruth describing a sunrise - but it just seems like a very exact distillation of everything that makes her distinctive: it's so strange and idiosyncratic, and quite odd and a bit flowery but it just works. That voice, for me, was crucial to the success of the story, and I think it will be something other readers either love or hate. It is the biggest part of what makes the book so incredibly unique, but it probably isn't what many will expect to find behind this particular cover.
The Well slots in well next to a crop of vaguely similar books I've read in the past year or so, books I can't quite fit into any existing sub-genre, though slipstream and transrealism come the closest. They typically have an element of fantasy, and they typically focus on a handful of ordinary lives quietly attempting to carry on in the face of some disaster or significant environmental change, rather than exploring the science of whatever this disaster is, rather than attempting to depict a dystopian society in detail. A thread of this type of everyday realism runs through The Well. The 'magic' of the house and its environs is clearly evident, and we know the media and public are obsessed with it - but we're confined to Ruth's view, cut off from most of this speculation, just trying to hold her family together in much the same way as anyone would in the midst of any emergency. Later, when that falls apart, she is enraptured not by her extraordinary surroundings, but by the love and friendship offered by a group of women. The story bears similarities to a number of other memorable books by female authors, namely Sarah Perry's After Me Comes the Flood (set during a drought, clear religious influences and overtones, an otherworldly feel); Paula Lichtarowicz's The First Book of Calamity Leek (explores the effects of (unorthodox) religious belief, insular living and the damage done by intensely close-knit bonds within an all-female community); and Samantha Harvey's Dear Thief (one woman's personal testament, told in order to unravel the truth, with a marriage at its centre but a friendship as its pivotal, and most destructive, relationship).
The Well is perhaps done a disservice by its thriller-like cover and synopsis (and that bloody inane 'I loved this book!' quote, which I'm hoping to god doesn't end up on the final cover). But then, how could you accurately summarise this book? I've written well over a thousand words and still don't feel I've captured it at all. I'm certain it won't be to everyone's taste - it sits in a weird and wonderful niche between commercial, experimental, literary and fantasy fiction - but I couldn't get enough of it. I'll be keeping an eye out for it (and urging everyone to try it) when it's published in March.
TL;DR - The Well is comparable to lots of other books in various small ways, but ultimately stands on its own as something totally unique. It confounds expectations and is a stunning debut. ...more